The novel opens with the Zimbabwean children Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho, Stina, and Darling (the story’s protagonist and narrator) on their way to Budapest to steal guavas. The children are not supposed to go there, but they are hungry, so they sneak out of their rundown village and break into a run, yelling and singing, as soon as they get to the bush. They must stop midway through their journey for Chipo to rest because she is pregnant, which the children don’t fully understand and which has caused Chipo to go mute. The children talk about how babies are made, how long it will be before the baby is born, and whether it will be a girl or a boy; Darling notes that “The first baby is supposed to be a boy” (5).
Darling describes the sights and smells of Budapest, so different from their village. She says that they started stealing guavas from Stina’s uncle, but have now started systematically stealing from the streets of strangers’ houses. When they get to the street they plan to steal from, a woman calls to them from her window and then comes outside to talk to them. She is thin, smiling, and barefoot; she holds a piece of half-eaten food and has a camera around her neck. The woman throws some of the food in the trash, causing Chipo to almost run after it, and asks the children how old they are. When they ask her in return, she says that she’s from London and that “this is [her] first time visiting [her] dad’s country” (9). Darling notices that the woman is also wearing a necklace that has a golden charm of a head shaped like Africa. The woman asks to take some pictures of them and they allow her to tell them where to stand and to say “cheese” (11). Eventually, Stina gets tired of this and walks away; the other children follow and at the street corner they start to shout insults at her. They find another house and steal guavas from it.
They walk back to their village, called Paradise, eating guavas and “spitting the peels all over to make the place dirty” (13). Sbho talks about how she will live in a house one day like a certain one she sees and Bastard throws a guava that explodes against the wall of the house, making Sbho angry. Sbho yells at him that she will find a man to marry her and take her out of Paradise. Darling thinks about how she is going to make a lot of money when she grows up so she can have houses in Budapest as well as in other cosmopolitan cities such as Los Angeles and Paris. The children continue to fight with one another and Darling tells them that she is going to live in America with her Aunt Fostalina but they turn upon her as well, talking about how she will have to work in a nursing home there like her aunt.
When they get back to Paradise, they have to “stop to defecate” (17), which is difficult because they have eaten too many guava seeds which make them constipated and can cut them on the way out. Suddenly, someone yells, but not out of pain. The children gather to find a woman hanging from a tree. Her eyes and mouth are open wide and she wears a yellow dress and red shoes. Stina and Darling want to run away, but Bastard throws a stone at her to show them that she’s dead so there’s nothing to fear. After talking about it a little more, the children start to walk away, but then Bastard has the idea that if they go back and steal her shoes, they can sell them and buy themselves some bread. The children rush to do this and then run away laughing.
Darling on the Mountain
The scene abruptly shifts to the weekend, when Darling must wash her whole body with cold water to prepare for church. She lives and attends church with a woman she calls “Mother of Bones” (21). As Darling washes, she thinks about the way the preacher “Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro” (22) once shook her until she vomited to try to get the spirit of her grandfather out of her. She is brought out of this reverie by her friends, who don’t have to attend church and yell for her to join them playing. Mother of Bones yells at them when they start to insult her church and the other children run away. Darling goes back inside her shack and starts to put on a yellow dress, thinking that if her mother, who “went to the border to sell things” (23), were there, she would not dare wear it. After she finishes dressing and putting on Vaseline, she looks at a picture on the wall of her father graduating from university. She says that her father is now in South Africa and never writes to them or sends money. Darling continues to look around the shack, describing a yellow curtain with peacocks, a calendar with a faded picture of Jesus, a picture of Darling’s cousin Makhosi carrying her when they were both little, and a Bible with a picture of Darling’s grandfather under the bed. Mother of Bones starts to rant about the stacks of worthless money she has and how people have told them they have to start using American money.
Darling and Mother of Bones walk through the village, past many neighbors outside their shacks, past the playground where her friends are playing, and all the way up a nearby mountain named Fambeki. When they pass the shack of a person named Vodloza, who promises to be the “bestest healer in all of this paradise and beyond” (29) for things like “AIDS, madness, small penises,... bad luck with getting visas especially to USA and Britain...” (29), they see many people waiting sadly outside. As they pass her friends and another boy named Bornfree, the children call out about a visit from an NGO next week and about a demonstration the next day where people will “walk for change” (31). Mother of Bones sings the whole way up the mountain as the sun beats down, and when they get there she joins the three other adults and Darling goes to sit with the few other children. The rest of the churchgoers soon arrive, including Darling’s friend Chipo. A woman named MaMoyo hands Darling her baby to hold but Darling makes faces and pinches him to make him cry.
Finally, Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro and “the Evangelists” (34) arrive; the Evangelists wear robes with colorful crosses and Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro wears a new, white robe with green and red stripes and carries a big, threatening stick with a cross on it. The congregants sing the song “Mikoro” (35) and sway. Darling, who finds the song boring, thinks about America. After this, Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro starts to preach, yelling loudly and sweating, and then reads from an English Bible “even though he sounds like a grade-one reading” (38). Finally, he begins to speak in tongues, causing people to moan and one woman to start to sing. He passes around a bowl for offerings and people stand up to confess their sins, but in the middle of the first confession a woman’s scream is heard. The congregation sees a woman in a purple dress struggling as she is carried up the mountain by a group of men. Darling catches a peek of her underwear as she is pinned to the ground, kicking and still screaming. Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro calls for more women to stand around her to sing and pray, and then he points his stick at her and commands the demon inside her to come out. When this doesn’t work, he pounces on her, touching her on the stomach, thighs, and genitals; by this time, Darling narrates that the woman “looks just like a rag now, the prettiness gone, her strength gone” (42). Suddenly, Chipo speaks: “He did that, that’s what he did... my grandfather” (42). Confused about how to feel, Darling only responds, “Do you want to go and steal guavas?” (43).
The children are now in Shanghai - not the Chinese city, but rather a construction site. Sbho’s grandmother has sent them to find a man named Moshe, who works there, and to bring him to Paradise. Men speak in many different languages, making the work site loud and disorganized, but the children can discern that Moshe left a few days ago for South Africa. The children go look inside a tent and find the foreman of the construction project who yells at them in Chinese. They see that he is fastening his belt over his large stomach and then two black girls with weaves and bling emerge from the tent, walking past many staring men and off away from the site. Another man comes up and talks to them about what is being built - a big mall. The children ask for trinkets, which they were given last time, but the Chinese man denies them. The children yell at them and walk away.
Back in Paradise, the children decide to play a game. They talk about China, calling it “a red devil” (49), but can’t come up with a game about it, so they start playing “country-game” (50). To play the game, you draw a big circle with a smaller circle inside it and then write the names of countries chosen by the players in sections of the outer circle. The children haggle over the “country-countries” (51) like the United States and France, but some will get stuck with places that are “not country-countries, but at least life is better than here” (51), like South Africa or even “terrible place[s] of hunger” (51) like Somalia and Iraq. After choosing countries, a caller is picked to say the name of one of the countries. Then, the person who has that country must run to the middle circle while all the other players run outwards.
They play this for a while and then see people from an NGO arriving in a lorry. They sing and dance while they wait, knowing that the NGO people will not be happy if they run toward the vehicle. They know that the NGO has brought them “gifts” (53) and they are especially excited because the NGO did not come last month as scheduled. Five people step out: three white foreigners, a driver from Zimbabwe, and a woman named Sis Betty also from Zimbabwe and who speaks their language. One of the men starts taking pictures of them and again focuses his pictures primarily on Chipo once he sees that she is pregnant. He also takes pictures of “Godknow’s black buttocks” (55) and of Bastard, who smiles and poses, which the children scold him for. Once it is time for gifts, Darling says that they go from an orderly group to “dizzied dung flies” (56), grabbing things and screaming. At this point, the adults show up, but they do not stop the children from behaving this way as they normally would, and it is Sis Betty who yells at them and gets them to stop. The children calm down and receive their gifts of clothes, sweets, and toy guns, and then it is the adults’ turn to line up and receive small packages of food. One woman named MotherLove does not line up for gifts, even when the NGO people and Sis Betty call her to come over. The lorry drives away and the children run screaming after it until they cannot see it anymore and head off to play with their “brand-new guns from America” (59).
The name "Paradise" is the first of many ironies in We Need New Names, both as it stands alone, labeling a place that is far from perfect, and as it compares with the biblical paradise of Eden, something hinted at by the theme of religion in the early sections of the novel. However, once Darling leaves for America later in the book, she will come to realize that her home there was indeed a paradise in some senses due to the freedom and friendship that filled her childhood.
The language used for Darling's narration is complicated in that the reader assumes there is translation going on - that she is thinking and speaking with her friends in her native language - but she also throws in or hears a smattering of English words, sometimes spelling them strangely to fit the pronunciation she understands. This makes for a very interesting reading experience in which Darling uses quite complex vocabulary such as "defecate" (17) but also fails to understand such common words as "cheese" (11), simply mimicking the sound to the best of her ability.
The picture of Darling's father is significant for two reasons. First of all, Bulawayo uses the literary device of defamiliarization by having Darling describe the picture in so much detail that it seems almost strange or fantastical (e.g., saying that he is wearing a dress) before explaining that it is a picture of a graduation. Her focus on this photo also reveals to the reader the first hint that her family has not always lived in poverty. Rather, they ended up in Paradise like all the others living around them, due to circumstances that pushed them out of their more comfortable lives, causing Darling to halt the education that could have kept her progressing toward a graduation of her own someday.
Religion is shown with a critical and ironic tone in We Need New Names, especially with regard to Western religion's influence in Zimbabwe. One particularly symbolic moment in this section of the book is when Darling questions the influence of Western religion in Africa herself by coloring Jesus's eyes brown on a calendar of Mother of Bones, which she is beaten for. She explains her actions as trying to make him look like her and the people she knows, which calls attention to the problematic nature of white, Western society expanding into Africa without alteration, supplanting African beliefs and identities rather than enriching them.
One curious moment with regard to authorial style comes when Darling is explaining the country-game to the reader. Games are an important way the children in Paradise process the world and an important window for the reader into the complex and somewhat damaged psyches of the children. While explaining country-game, Darling narrates in the first person with a very conversational style, skipping from thought to association, rattling off long lists, and posing bittersweet rhetorical questions. This conversational style is pushed the farthest when Darling says, "You divide the outer ring depending on how many people are playing and cut it up in nice pieces like this" (51). By saying "like this," Bulawayo tells the reader that they should really see themselves as present in Darling's reality, rather than having something explained to them from afar; they must truly visualize what she describes.